The Alternative Conventional Hive

I believe there is not a keeper that hasn’t experienced the emotion of discovering one of their hives has died. The sadness, the feeling of some how we failed those bees. “Did I do something wrong, could I have done more?” For me, there was a period of time, in my bee keeping career, that felt I wasn’t smart enough, that I didn’t know how to keep bees alive. I felt I was failing miserably at something I wanted so badly to succeed at. I took any colony loss personally but it wasn’t about my ego. I realize there is always some colony die outs in beekeeping, it is actually normal and should be expected at a reasonable level. Still, I felt that the colony depended on me to do my part and be smart enough to keep them alive and I had failed. Then it struck me- It’s not about a single colony survival. Don’t get me wrong I would save every colony if I could but it is about our “apiary” surviving, our personal population of bees living on.
A small group of members from the Olympia Beekeeper Association are embarking upon a big mission. A way of keeping our apiaries alive. This new movement is so exciting for me the I have taken the liberty of naming the group the South Sound Sustainable Apiaries group. The name may change pending the group’s decision. For me it is an endeavor I had already started myself and for years is something very personal to me- keeping bees alive. The concept of the group is to create sustainable apiaries. Viewing your whole apiary as a self-sustaining unit. Be it a single hive apiary or a 100 hives. How do we get off the treadmill of keeping bees by buying packages every Spring? I will say just a few words about packages then move on. “The least successful source of bees is packages, the most successful source of bees is locally grow bees. Bees grown right in your own apiary with queens that at least born, raised and bred in your region of the country.” There I said it in exactly 40 words :-). In the Spring it hurts to see your package colony has died. However, seeing a nuc you made from that colony last Summer with a strong local queen survive the Winter and bursting with bees is a joy. You may have lost one colony but you have not failed your bees, you have sustained your apiary.
There are several ways to make winter nucs and during the November 14th 2016 club meeting Thomas Mani introduced the Over Wintering Double Nuc hive method. It is a way to make our club members self sustaining beekeepers. The Alterative Conventional Hive is a prototype double nuc system that enhances the "one hive" mentality of two nuc colonies. I researched Thomas’s theory and built a prototype double nuc system that sits on a 10 frame Langstroth foot print. Basically it is two nucs side by side with a thin wall between the two colonies. When I build equipment, I try really hard to keep as much of my tweaking and refining compatible to our existing bee equipment. Trying to keep everything as standard as possible. Inside a double nuc the two separate colonies will tend to cluster against the inner wall during the winter. If they don’t at least sense each other, they will feel the thin center walls to be slightly warmer because of the colony on the other side. A good way to think of the benefits of making a winter nuc is that it is an insurance/investment for your apiary. It is an insurance policy if your main hive doesn’t make it through the Winter. If your main hive does make it through the winter strong, that insurance policy nuc just became an investment that you can sell. There is a huge market for over wintered nucs.
It’s all about the bees,

Does a Multi-hive Style Apiary Make for a Tired Beekeeper?

Does incorporating Alternative style Top Bar and Warre hives into a Langstroth hive apiary make one a better beekeeper? It does make for a lot more work! 3 different hardware styles, none of the parts are interchangeable. The reason and purpose why the 3 hives were developed are different with 3 different management styles. But- keeping a multi-style hive apiary can’t help but hone a keeper’s skills. Working with the bees under different conditions, using different methods of management in different hives does make one a more aware, skilled, and tired keeper. Keeping bees in 3 different style hives at the same time can be used as a measurement of skill but may also be used as a measurement of sanity :-). One important fact I learned is that each hive style was developed with different reasons, purposes and expectations in mind. Each requires a different management style. Learning the technical side of managing 3 different styles will expand a keeper’s knowledge and patience. The bees in Alternative hives are given more “free rein” to do what they want. Managing bees under those conditions does require a bit of patience. My often used description of this “free rein” management style is- “Bees don’t read the instructions” Briefly, here are descriptions of the 3 hives of a multi-hive style apiary.

Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth developed the Langstroth hive in 1852. He saw honey as a resource and the honey bee colonies as little natural industrialized societies that, with the proper habitat or “factory”, could produce a large amount of products for humans. He saw the bee colony as an industrial factory and the apiary as an industrial complex. His hive and management focused on a maximum production concept. This hive has different size boxes and frames and can be managed by the frame and box.

Abbe’ Emile Warre developed his hive and management in the early 1900's attempting to incorporate a happy medium of the bee’s natural world and mankind’s desire for products from the hive. Emile called his hive The People’s Hive and it is managed vertically and although it can be managed by a bar at a time it is easier to work the hive by the box. Of these 3 hives it requires the least management and hive products are less then the Langstroth.

The Top Bar hive has the “deepest” past with versions of it being mentioned as far back as ancient Egypt. During an era of skeps, clay tubes, and hollow logs, versions of top bar styles began to appear as methods of managing hives without struggling with fixed combs. Credit for the present day Kenyan Top Bar hive seems to go to Dr. Maurice Smith of Canada who developed today’s sloped sided version of the hive in the early 1970's. This hive is managed horizontally, in a single box, and by a single bar at a time. As with the Warre, produces less hive products then the Langstroth.
The most important thing I learned that is the most valuable for me to realize and the greatest benefit to the bees. “One can not assume that the health of a colony can be guaranteed based solely on the style of hive they are kept in.” Choosing any particular style of hive didn’t grant me a freedom from management as in “hands free”. Each hive style presents a different style of management. Alternative hives may require less management but it is less management in relation to maximizing hive production. For many reasons in today’s beekeeping, all hive styles require a vigilant management for colony health.

It’s all about the bees


Keeping Bees Alive and Healthy – Proactive or Reactive Management?

In the American dictionary the definition of health is “ the state of being free from illness or injury”. For the sake of discussion in this column I want to establish that managing health and treating for illness as two different aspects of management. There is a difference between treating illness and optimizing health. When a treatment of some kind is required it indicates an unhealthy condition. Treating is a reactionary management after an illness or pest has been detected. In managing health there are specific things we can do to maintain health and prevent illness, which is the proactive management of health. Reactive or proactive is not a right or wrong thing. In today’s beekeeping it is imperative to understand about and always be on alert for aliments that are or might affect our colonies and manage our hives appropriately. We can be proactive, applying a concept of working on creating conditions to enhance health before there is an indication sickness. That being said, let me confuse the issue. There is also a gray area called ”preventive maintenance treatment”. An example of that is a treatment for Varroa mites before the mites reach a critical level. I equate this management to humans receiving flu vaccine shots. Technically it’s a treatment, but a proactive treatment of a healthy organism to maintain health. In Alternative beekeeping there is a management concept that- if given the chance, the bees themselves can be both proactive and reactive in their own colony’s health. Michael Bush puts it very well in his book- “The Practical Beekeeper” when he says, “Give them the resources to resolve the problem and let them. If you can’t give them the resources, then limit the need for the resources”. An example he gives for giving resources and letting them resolve the problem is a queen-less hive. Give the colony a frame of brood once a week for 3 weeks and they will resolve the problem by making their own new queen. An example of limiting resources is one we all know- how we help the bees resolve the problem of hive robbing for themselves. We reduce or limit the size of one of their resources, the entrance.

In my opinion;
The strongest proactive form of maintaining Alternative healthy bees is starting with the strongest, healthiest bees we can. There is a growing realization that much of what we try to do as keepers to keep bees healthy and alive is exacerbated by poor or weak genetics, commercially narrowed gene pool, relocated genetics, (southern queens born and bred in the south and shipped to northern states). Starting with the strongest stock we can obtain helps immensely in keeping bees using Alternative methods of management.

In colonies started with a package- replace the package queen as soon as possible with a regional queen. There are some methods of breeding your own queen on a small scale. I find it far more convenient to purchase my regional queens from local breeders. We have some good queen breeders here in Western Washington state.

Catch swarms. There is no guarantee that the swarm you are catching isn’t someone else’s commercial genetics hive that swarmed. However the odds are far better that a swarm has stronger genetics than a package.

I do catch some grief from beekeepers when I talk about this last subject. Don’t worry if your colony swarms. I’m not saying “try” to get them to swarm, just don’t think it is a bad thing. Realize that it’s the colony’s proactive method of a healthy hive. Many of the aliments of the hive are brood related. The temporary reduction and lack of brood during the swarming period helps control these issues. Also the new virgin queen in your hive will breed with local drones and become your first generation regionally bred queen.

“It’s all about the bees” Ernie

Hives of Cedar

Does it make a difference what you build your hives out of? Depends on who you ask and the answer will depend on why and how they keep bees. It is generally accepted that commercial hives serve a different purpose then Alternative hives.

The wood and other materials used to construct commercial hives are excellent for the purpose they serve. Many times a keeper wants to make the hive itself- a symbol of statement. Neat rows of bright white Lang hives have a beauty showing a pride of ownership. Some keepers of Lang hives make their hives yard art by decoratively painting them with bright colors and designs. The bee hive can be a piece of art that just happens to house honey bees.
Western Red Cedar hives are very attractive in the Alternative beekeeping circles. They do make an attractive piece of yard art that houses bees. A hive of any style made of Western Red Cedar has a natural level of unique aesthetic beauty. The wood has the quality of not being uniform in appearance. Every piece of cedar will have a different design of color, grain, and knot pattern. When I build with it, I organize the pieces of wood out on the work bench. I will move them around, turn them over, study the wood, looking to maximize that uniqueness. I make a deliberate effort to accent the beauty of the wood. Then build it into the bee homes I am making. When I build hives for other keepers I guarantee them their hive will be “one of a kind”.
Western Red Cedar is more then just a beautiful wood to look at. It has several physical qualities making it an excellent material to make bee homes with. Cedar is a wood with a very low density. Low density means a high proportion of air spaces, which makes Cedar the best thermal insulator of all our common building wood. It has a 1 ½ to 2 times better insulating value then other woods. A hive with a higher insulated value assists the bees in managing the warming and cooling duties preformed by the bees in the hive. A low density also makes Cedar more dimensionally stable, shrinking and swelling less in a wet climate. That’s not to say that it doesn’t shrink or swell at all, it just doesn’t do it as much as other woods. Another property of Cedar that makes it a good hive building material is that it is hygroscopic. Meaning that the wood will absorb and expel moisture trying to balance with its surrounding environment. When I talk about this I say, “Cedar can breath”.
The natural preservative properties in Cedar wood means it can also absorb high levels of moisture without developing mold and fungus growth. Being hygroscopic and resistant to mold and fungus is a good quality to have inside a bee hive because of the high levels of humidity and condensation the bees can produce.

One thing I did find out, well I should say, I could not find- Evidence that building a hive out of Cedar will deter Wax moths. The Cedar wood appears to not have any properties that has any effect on any of the pest and diseases that affect honey bees. In my mind it would stand to reason that if there were substances in Cedar wood irritating or harmful to other insects it would have an adverse affect on the bees. Through it does make for lively debate in the social media beekeeping sites, I can not find any scientific study or verifiable evidence showing any adverse effects on bees kept in cedar hives.

My experience building and using Cedar hives is that they do take bee housing to different level for both the keeper and the bees. Personally I refer to Cedar hives as “Bee Homes”.

It’s all about the bees,


Beekeeping-Managing the Odds

I saw a bumper sticker once that said,"I’m a professional gambler- I keep bees". At the time I thought it was humorous, but as I thought about it more and more, I realized there was some level of truth in the humor. Sometimes it seems that keeping bees alive and healthy is a game of luck and odds.

So how do you stack the odds in your favor? As in-"Doing specific things for the intentionally purpose of increasing your chances of successful outcomes in beekeeping". For this philosophy to work one needs to establish a starting point of what the odds are. Normally we might approach it by saying, "If I do nothing, I have a 50/50 chance of success". In today’s beekeeping "doing nothing" with your bees reduces your chances or odds of success to less then 50/50. Under normal, natural, healthy conditions in the wild, a new swarm with no human intervention has about a 20% chance of surviving their first winter. Nearly every winter loss is due to starvation. Interestingly enough, a colony of bees that survives that first Winter has a 75% chance of surviving it’s second Winter. The first Winter is tough for a new colony but the odds of survival triple if we can get it through the first Winter.

What can beekeepers do to increase the odds of a new swarm/package to survive it’s first winter? The answer is in the reason why the majority of them die- starvation. Feed them new colonies. The minute a package or swarm clusters in it’s new home in early Spring, it begins to prepare for the coming Winter. Everything they do requires energy in the form of nectar/syrup and pollen/patties, the comb building, brood raising, gathering propolis, water, etc. It is estimated that a new colony must produce the equivalent of over 40 pounds of honey by Fall to prepare the colony for the coming Winter.

Another method to increase odds of success- keep more then one hive. If you start with one hive and it dies, you have lost 100% of your bees. If you have 2 hives and lose one, you have only lost 50% of your bees. It reduces the chances of total loses. If the hives are the same style it retains resources for the keeper to reinstate lost hives by working from the surviving hive.

Also retaining the old comb from your die outs. Safe, old drawn comb is like a gold mine to bees. Swarms actively seek out abandoned hives, previously occupied tree cavities and swarm traps baited with old comb. Making comb takes time and a lot of energy, having ready made comb gives the new colony a jump start. My personal method of "sterilizing" bars and frames of old comb for reuse is carefully packing them in the freezer for a few days. Be super careful! Frozen comb crumbles very easily.

There are many ways a keeper can manage their bees to increase the odds of success. I feel the most important way to stack the odds in your favor is knowledge. Surround yourself with like minded people, join a bee club, read books, watch videos, find a mentor. Don’t depend a whole lot on luck, simply getting bees and hoping for a good out come. Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of luck involved in beekeeping. However, I have found unquestionably, that the smarter I get, the luckier I get. So how does one separate the difference between the odds, knowledge, luck, or being good at beekeeping? You don’t- You mix the first 3 to get the 4th.

Happy Beekeeping,